Fourth Sunday of Lent – March 26, 2006 – Blessed Sacrament
In today’s New Testament readings we have two of the most powerful statements of the nature, the character, of our relationship with God, or, perhaps better, of God’s relationship with us. The Gospel has the neat statement that one could wish more commonly defined Christians’ basic idea of God: “God so loved the world that he sent his own Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” Love defines God’s relation to the world, love–not hatred, not anger, not vengeance, not condemnation, not even justice modeled on our ideas–love explains the sending of his Son and the purpose for which he came.
And listen again to the repeated phrases of the seven verses we heard from the Epistle to the Ephesians: “God who is rich in mercy, because of the great love he had for us…”; “by grace you have been saved”; “the immeasurable riches of his grace in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus”; “by grace you have been saved”; “it is the gift of God.” An abundance of simple, almost awe-struck, phrases to describe the abundance of the mercy in which we stand.
Well what are we to make of these two texts? The first thing, I think, is to take the time, to allow ourselves, to drink in their truth. These texts mean that the world is gracious, grace-full. This physical universe need not exist, and if it does, it does so by God’s free choice and creative artistry: the universe is a work of art. These texts mean that our own existence, as a race and as individuals, is gracious, grace-full: we need not exist, and if we do, it is because God holds each of us in existence at this very moment. These texts mean that even if evil invades our world, if evil even invades our hearts, even that is not enough to alter the love of God for us: it was “when we were dead in our transgressions,” St. Paul has just told us, that “God brought us to life with Christ,” so rich is he in mercy. Well, we might ask ourselves: Is this the God in whom we believe? The God who determines what we think of Christianity? And is this the world, the universe, in which we live?
And if so, what kind of persons must we be to live in such a world, before such a God? There is an awful statement in the Gospel we just heard, where Jesus speaks of a judgment, a basic decision, that his coming provokes: “This is the verdict”–the Greek word is krisis, which means a deciding, separating, choosing–this is the critical point, the basis of decision–“that the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil,” whereas “whoever lives the truth comes to the light.” The verdict, the judgment, the decision is one that we make. Encountering a gracious God is a greater test than encountering a vengeful God: an angry God can provoke a merely external response, something done to appease him, to avoid punishment. A gracious God, however, casts light on our hearts, and it may very well be that we don’t want our hearts exposed to the light, not only not to God’s light but also not to the light of our own consciences. And so we are content to live our lives as if what these texts say about God and about our universe is not true.
Because the inescapable implication of these texts, if they are true, is that we have to be people of a similar disposition, people whom graciousness–even to the point of forgiveness, perhaps especially to the point of forgiveness– marks as children of such a God living in a world of such grace. God’s light can free hearts, but only hearts that do not prefer prison to freedom, the prison of their habitual attitudes and behavior, the prison of distorted relations, the prison of addictions, the prison of a calculus of justice, of clearly calibrated rewards and punishments, the prison of despair or resignation. God’s light can free hearts except those of people who prefer such prisons to the freedom a freely loving God requires and enables. Accepting to step out of such dark prisons into the light of a universe illumined by God’s grace is to set free within us an energy that can transform us and that can transform our relationships, within our families, within our communities, within our Church, within our world. Think of all that might change if love, grace, forgiveness marked my life, our lives, the whole world’s life!
The last verse in the passage we heard from Ephesians: “We are God’s handiwork–his work of art–created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should live in them.” The final Greek verb here is more concrete than this translation indicates: the good works that we should walk about in them. Literary critics speak of the world of a text: Well, we have just heard of the world of these two New Testament texts, and we should ask ourselves: Is this the world in which we are walking about?